VIFF 2017: Forest Movie (Matthew Taylor Blais, 2017) and Prototype (Blake Williams, 2017)

ForestMovie

Two tricks of the eye:

Matthew Taylor Blais’s Forest Movie focuses attention on the center knowing that you’ll likely miss what’s happening at the margins. The pivotal shot that comprises nearly half the film’s runtime works explicitly on this principal. After tracking a young woman on a half hour stroll through the forest, Blais sits her and his camera down to stare at a patch of woods for thirty straight minutes in a fixed, Academy ratio long take, a la James Benning. Anyone who’s had a brush with the work of that august American avant-gardist will know that the pleasures offered by an image like this lie in the shifting textures of light and the peripatetic impulse of the human mind to drift elsewhere when confronted with something this still; he will also know that Benning got there first and has fruitfully mined similar landscapes for nearly a half century. But keep watching and Blais’s distinctive spin on the set-up reveals itself around the edges of the frame: the aspect ratio is slowly expanding over the duration of the shot, widening from 4:3 to 1.85 widescreen. Blais hides the change by framing a circular stump dead center, which naturally draws the eye away from the edges and obscures the movement happening on the periphery, where our vision is less sensitive. The moment of realization will arise differently for each viewer, though Blais wakes up even the most hypnotized (or bored) viewer with a hard cut back to Academy ratio. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this wonderfully deployed trompe l’oeil in context of the rest of the film, which for better or worse melted from my thoughts the longer I gazed at the screen, but there’s no denying the primal (and very physical) awe inspired by Forest Movie’s slow-cinema sleight of hand.

PrototypePrototype, which also showed as part of VIFF’s Future//Present series, plays even more directly with the anatomy of human vision. Blake Williams, like gran-père Godard before him, explodes the possibilities of modern 3D—and early twentieth century American history for good measure—with his science fiction rendering of the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Archival stereoscopic images of the disaster open the film before a tidal wave of light bends towards the audience and seemingly merges past with present (or is it Future//Present?). Five TV screens then materialize against the void and flicker with found footage both directly and indirectly connected to the subject historical event. The result is a virtual gallery space where up to five images exist simultaneously within the frame, each image itself split in two, across the left and right eye. The densest moments offer no less than ten possible images, which are only accessible individually by closing one eye and then the other. With both eyes open, more information hits the retina than the mind can process. Williams clearly delights in the pleasure/pain dichotomy that arises from such a deluge of visual data, which partly explains Prototype’s final plunge into complete abstraction. The found footage breaks into pulsating white swatches which swirl around an unseen center, and the images Williams previously layered on top of one another (and across the eyes) decouple feverishly. Matter, time, and history have come apart at the seams.

Hitchcock at the Uptown

tumblr_mx1nuirpOe1qhsqm1o1_1280Without much fanfare, The SIFF Uptown this week is playing five of the greatest movies ever. Perhaps the lack of publicity (it isn’t even mentioned in this week’s SIFF newsletter (Edit: well, it wasn’t in the first one I got for this week, it was in the second one)) is due to the fact that these films are hardly strangers to Seattle screens, or perhaps because they’re all screening digitally instead of on film. But regardless, the fact remains that there are few better ways to spend your cinematic weekend than watching a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films in a movie theatre.

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Goodbye to Language 3D at the SIFF Cinema Uptown

Farewell-to-Language-thefilmbook

The latest film from Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, 84-year old icon of the French New Wave (you know the hits: Breathless, Pierrot le fou, Contempt), after a smash-hit two-night run at the Cinerama earlier this month, gets a full run of shows this week at the Uptown. In keeping with the director’s late style, it’s a series of disjointed and overlapping ruminations and jokes, half-oblique narrative and half-essay film, shot in an experimental digital 3D that is guaranteed to slice out your eyeballs. Like a handful of other auteur projects (Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Wim Wenders’s Pina), Adieu au langage (I prefer the French title, if only because it’s riffed and punned on throughout the movie) makes the case for the potential of digital 3D to add something truly new and wondrous to the art form, rather than simply as a tool for ever more “spectacular” effects designed to lure teenagers to the multiplex. There’s a kind of a plot, about two couples, or one couple twice, but like most late Godard, it isn’t, for the most part, immediately comprehensible (Professor David Bordwell has helpfully elucidated on his website his reading of the plot and its structure, along with a lot of other insights gleaned over much research and several viewings). Yet despite the gnomic impenetrability, few 2014 films are more immediately pleasurable, more of an experience. Under the sheen of narrative games and puns and references both literary and cinematic, at the center of it all, is a dog, Roxy Miéville, wandering the countryside, beside a lake, through a woods, a natural world utterly transformed by the phantasmagoric possibilities of digital cinema.

(Goodbye to Language 3D plays digitally at SIFF Cinema Uptown 1/23-1/29)